Meet-ups with fellow project managers keep bringing up thought-provoking discussions and interesting ideas on how to maximize the efficiency of project teams. This time, I want to share some notes from the February dinner meeting of the PMI LA Chapter. After my presentation that focused on the ways of making distributed teams efficient, one of the most interesting questions that I heard from the audience was how to introduce a team to a granular work breakdown.

No matter how talented and experienced your remote worker is, it might still be unproductive to assign him a huge, month-long task. There’s always some risk in thinking that he’ll do just fine figuring it out all on his own. This way, you severely limit your visibility into the work progress, and if the course goes wrong, you might discover it too late to clear things up. When you can’t discuss things with some of the team members directly and frequently, having more granular assignments might be a helpful tactic and make life easier for both parties. So how exactly do you make it work?

Making a sliding scale work in planning

First, you could use a sliding scale in planning. Your weekly plan for this week could focus on 5-10 things, just like your quarterly plan, but the scope of those things will obviously be quite different. You don’t have to build a detailed, upfront plan for 52 weeks on January 1st of the new year. If your only concern is visibility, then a weekly plan that only includes the current week is enough. As a new period of time comes, be it quarter, month, week, or day, you plan it, thus the term “sliding scale.” The closer this time period is to today, the more detailed your plan should be. You should however be aware of scope leap when using a system like this.

When possible and reasonable, you should also delegate the planning to the employees who are doing the work. Most people feel more moral responsibility for getting the work done on time when they have promised the dates, not when the dates were imposed on them. This not only makes them more responsible, but also makes them happier. By the way, in our recent research on working habits, we discovered that sense of responsibility is the No. 1 productivity trigger:

wrike productivity triggers

People feel stressed out when they feel no control over their life and work. By returning that feel of control back to them, you empower them. Did I mention that it also saves you from having to do the initial planning?:) It’s hard to come up with a better win-win. Of course, you should also review the plans and align them with higher-level objectives and other employees.

Steps to building a new habit within the team

Sure enough, it’s easier said than done, as some employees prefer murky schedules, so that they don’t need to report very often. Here are the steps that helped me introduce sliding scale, bottom-up planning:

- Make sure to communicate your vision. Why exactly are smaller tasks a better option than bigger assignments? Make sure your team clearly understands the benefits and doesn’t see it as their leader’s new micromanagement whim.- Seed it by your own example. For instance, if you use a collaboration system with a newsfeed, when your workers see how you complete tasks one after another, this might give them a good deal of motivation. They wouldn’t want to lag behind.

- When you want to implement some change, making it happen in one big swipe is often hard. Instead, support from a group of “pioneers” might be really helpful. Some employees are more open to new methods. Also, some might be more productivity-oriented than others. Form the “core team,” build the right productivity habit there, and it’ll be easier to later plug in others through peer pressure.

- You can blend it into your team’s other working habits. For example, if you have weekly virtual meetings to discuss the work progress and the plans, how big is the difference between these two ways of phrasing the agenda? “Last week, we got 40% of the project completed” or “Last week, we got 10 tasks completed on the project, namely …” To me, the second version sounds way more concise, but it still plays nicely with the habit of discussing work progress every week.

- In his awesome best-seller “Good to Great,” Jim Collins said, "Sustained great results depend upon building a culture full of self-disciplined people who take disciplined action.” If, after some time and persistent efforts, the new habit still doesn’t stick with certain employees, you need to look deeper into the reasons. Are they your best performers who try to set up their own rules, or are they your worst performers who try to hide that behind ambiguous schedules and obscure “percent completed” updates? Do they simply need some extra motivation, or do they drag and slow down the whole team?

wrike collins good to great
Motivation and other benefits of granular tasks

The advantages of slicing work into smaller parts are supported by psychologists. For instance, Joseph Ferrari, a professor from DePaul University, says that when the scope of work looks overwhelming, you get captured by the feeling of “seeing the forest and forgetting that it’s made of trees.” In the opposite situation, we can get valuable small wins. Quoting another interesting book, “Small wins are something people can experience pretty regularly if the work is chunked down to manageable pieces” (from “The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work” by Teresa M. Amabile and Steven J. Kramer).

wrike the concept of small wins
By the way, “small wins” have become a behavioral term, and they’re often discussed in literature. In “The Power of Habit,” Charles Duhigg concluded that a “huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power, an influence disproportionate to the accomplishments of the victories themselves.”

What else is there in the habit of granular work organization? In addition to the benefits of clarity, visibility and easier tracking, this approach to distributing workload might also be an efficient way to eliminate procrastination. Another revelation of our survey on work styles was that 21% of workers see procrastination as one of the most dangerous productivity killers. So they’ll most likely thank you if you give them a good weapon to fight this enemy :)